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Revisiting the Richard Riot to explain Habs coaching controversy

Dec 22, 2011, 1:23 PM EDT

Maurice Richard

The general consensus outside Quebec is that it doesn’t matter what language the Canadiens’ coach speaks as long he helps the team win.

Even within the province there’s a healthy portion that feels the same way. As the Montreal Gazette’s Red Fisher wrote today, “Players who know how to win have made this franchise great….That’s where it begins. That’s where it ends – and should.”

But for those who are struggling to understand why many French-speaking Quebecers are upset at the appointment of head coach Randy Cunneyworth, even on an interim basis, the Richard Riot of 1955 is a good place to start.

To the Wikipedia-mobile!

On March 13, 1955, Montreal’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard – the game’s best player – got high-sticked by the Bruins’ Hal Laycoe in a game in Boston. In response, Richard went berserk.

Richard skated up to Laycoe, who had dropped his stick and gloves in anticipation of a fight, and struck him in the face and shoulders with his stick. The linesmen attempted to restrain Richard, who repeatedly broke away from them to continue his attack on Laycoe, eventually breaking a stick over his opponent’s body before linesman Cliff Thompson corralled him. Richard broke loose again and punched Thompson twice in the face, knocking him unconscious.

Consequently, Richard was suspended by NHL President Clarence Campbell for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.

Habs fans subsequently lost their minds. When Campbell, an anglophone, attended the next Montreal home game on March 17 at the Forum, they demonstrated their displeasure.

The 15,000 in attendance immediately started booing Campbell. Some fans began pelting them with eggs, vegetables, and various debris for six straight minutes. At the end of the first period, Detroit had taken 4–1 lead, and the barrage began again. Despite police and ushers’ attempts to keep fans away from Campbell, a fan, pretending to be a friend of Campbell’s, managed to elude security. As he approached, the fan extended his hand as if to shake Campbell’s. When Campbell reached out to shake his hand, the fan slapped him. As Campbell reeled from the attack, the fan reached back and delivered a punch.

Yada, yada, yada, there was a riot.


Here’s the important part:

Richard was considered the embodiment of French-Canadians and was a hero during a time when they were seen as second-class citizens. He was revered when he fought the “damn English” during games. In his book, The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard, Benoît Melançon compares Richard to Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson by stating that both players represented the possibility for their minority groups to succeed in North America.

During the 1950s, Quebec’s industries and natural resources were controlled primarily by English Canadians or Americans. Québécois were the lowest-paid ethnic group in Quebec, which resulted in a sense that control rested with the Anglophone minority. Because of this and other factors, there had been growing discontent in the years before the riot.

And in the years after the riot, the discontent grew. A lot. For more on that, read this.

Anyway, not defending or supporting angry Habs fans when it comes to Cunneyworth’s appointment, but you can’t really look at this issue in a vacuum. There are years and years of history and emotion behind it.

  1. pastabelly - Dec 22, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    In another month, Montreal may not even be relevant this hockey season. :)

  2. xkaren08 - Dec 22, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    Thanks for posting this. There is so much history in hockey that still profoundly influences the game that many newer fans/younger people aren’t aware of. As a history geek I love learning about it 😉

    I think there are some legitimate concerns about a coach being able to speak to the press and Quebecois fans directly and what the people of the province want the identity of their team in the future to be. When looking for a new head coach, I think these are certainly issues to consider.

    That’s just it though, the Habs are STILL looking for a new head coach. Cunneyworth is an INTERIM head coach. Write all the columns you want about not retaining his services after the year but when they’ve said he’s a temp and there are no obvious French speaking choices at the ready this level of outrage seems excessive.

    Hey, the way Tampa is sucking it up Guy Boucher may be available for next season.

  3. sknut - Dec 22, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    That was an interesting read. It does provide more context to the situation. I am sure that there is a large majority that don’t care who coaches as long as they win but in this case there is a very vocal minority talking about the language issue. I wonder how much Cunneyworth saw into this when accepting the interim job.

  4. govtminion - Dec 22, 2011 at 2:22 PM

    Can I ask a favor? Can we get more articles like this? Seriously- the NHL has such a rich and long history, it’s fun to see things like this here that casual or new fans maybe didn’t know about- and that even this old veteran fan didn’t know as much about before. Maybe a weekly feature like the Tire Pump?

    Good article here, thank you.

    • ballistictrajectory - Dec 22, 2011 at 3:11 PM


    • davebabychreturns - Dec 22, 2011 at 7:10 PM


  5. cshearing - Dec 22, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    This does shed some light on it, especially for our American friends I would imagine. And I do understand the reason this is a contentious issue. There is a portion of the Habs fan-base that does not speak English at all. They would be unable to understand anything their coach said. I get it.

    However, if this is the road you are going down (“you” being Habs fans & management), please understand you are now NOT doing “everything it takes to win”. You are doing as much as you can under these constraints. Montreal will have a handicap, there is not doubt. When you limit your pool of selection, there is a very real chance you do not get the best person.

    • xkaren08 - Dec 22, 2011 at 3:53 PM

      Yeah, this whole situation has been educational. I consider myself to be a pretty knowledgeable person about the world outside of the US, but I admit I had no idea there were so many Canadians that only spoke French. I (quite wrongly) assumed that while many people spoke French as a first language, they were also mostly fluent in English as well.

      I get the whole preserving culture thing, but given how communication technologies have shrunk the world these days, it doesn’t seem wise to not also learn a second language- English/French in Canada & English/Spanish in the US. Or Mandarin I suppose 😉 I know I wish I’d been taught more Spanish at an earlier age and that isn’t even an official language in the US.

  6. donttouchthedirtypenny - Dec 22, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    So, was that gas pipeline ever finished?

  7. haterzgonahate - Dec 22, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    Le Habitants take their culture seriously… Canadians should all be thankful they’re pushovers lol

    otherwise Canada would have been no better than the unrest in Ireland between the North and South

  8. blomfeld - Dec 24, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    Great article, interesting situation there in Montreal and good comments …

    Our First Nations brothers notwithstanding, it’s important to remember that the French were the first “Canadians” here in what we call Canada today. Up until 1759, New France essentially covered the entire eastern half North America, stretching all the way from the Maritimes and Saint Lawrence River, through the Ohio Valley (ie: Detroit or the “the narrows” in French) and all the way down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The English presence was limited to just a small pocket in the northeast including Virginia, the Carolinas, New York and Boston, while the Spanish had free rein in the west, having already been present there for some 200 “plus” years (ie: California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and even venturing as far north as Montana (ie: Spanish for “mountains”). Then at that pivotal moment at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, a single yet “lethal” volley from the British line, cast the dye for how our continent would eventually emerge and thus appear today.

    I’m hardly “pro” French myself, as my bloodlines have been waring with them for centuries (ie: English & German). However I respect the French very much for their unwavering conviction, pride and backbone. Like Canada itself, the French are so much a part of hockey and hockey is so much a part of the French …

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